As we near the start of fall camp, this series explores 11 interesting topics and themes related to the 2011 football team. Previously in the series:
The conventional wisdom is that Texas' offensive line is a glaring weakness heading into the 2011 season, and given the enormous struggles of the unit in recent years, skepticism certainly makes sense as the default position. So you can imagine my surprise when upon analyzing and writing about the offensive line for this year's football preview annual I found myself wondering whether this unit might just wind up being a team asset.
It's a crucial question, obviously, at least as fundamental to the fate of the 2011 offense as the ability of one or more quarterbacks to prove themselves ready. Indeed, even if Gilbert or McCoy or Ash is ready to step in and deliver quality quarterback play, it won't much matter if the offensive line is as bad as it has been in recent years. Moreover, it's probably fair to conclude that the ability of one of these quarterbacks to deliver consistent quality depends on the ability of their offensive teammates to run the football. If the Longhorns are as poor a rushing team as they were the past three seasons, the quarterbacks won't have a prayer at succeeding unless they possess an abundance of unusually brilliant playmaking ability.
Change At The Top
With that in mind, the single best news related to the 2011 offensive line is the benefits that will accompany the turnover at the coaching level. In each of the past four years the coaching staff served up platitudes about a vigorous commitment to running the football, their insincerity consistently belied by incoherent game plans and increasingly pitiful production. The offense as a whole, and the line specifically, should be in a much better position to find consistency and success with improvements in the offensive staff's overall approach, planning, practice, and implementation. After years of adamantly insisting he wanted to fix the rushing game, Mack Brown finally did something to back it up: he hired Bryan Harsin.
As I cover in my preview of the offense in this year's football annual (and as wonderfully detailed by LonghornScott over at BC), Harsin builds his offense around a few base plays such as the Power O, an age-old rushing staple that aims to overwhelm the opposition by flooding the play side with blockers. A simple, straightforward play, for decades the Power O has been widely appealing to coaches as a base play -- effective as a strong play to run multiple times per game and as a set up for other plays that can be run off of it (including minor variations on the Power O itself).
In other words, the Power O (and other base plays like it) are foundations of a systematic approach to attacking a defense. After years of mostly haphazard offense, it's easy to see why the offensive line might greatly benefit from such a coherent, streamlined approach. They will be drilled to master a manageable set of foundational plays, and then build out from there, in ways that fit with that foundation and make sense as complementary parts of a whole.
And then there's Searels, a strong teacher of technique and, just as important, known for instilling toughness in his charges. As Paul Crewe from the excellent LSU blog And The Valley Shook recently characterized him:
Being an offensive minded coach himself, Mack knows what Searels brings to the table, particularly to a pro-style attack with a power run game. That’s a game Searels can coach and teach. Considering there is no lack of talent at Texas, that won’t be an issue. The issue has been the talent failing to attain it’s potential. Searels won’t stand for that. He’s demanding and fiery. He’s famous for shattering dry-erase boards on the sideline. In some ways he’s like a more dignified Ed Orgeron. He’s coached up the likes of Andrew Whitworth, Stephen Peterman and Rudy Niswanger and of the three, I can only recall Whitworth being an all world type of talent. All three are still in the NFL.
That's precisely what Texas needed from its coach at this position, and the admirable job he did managing a decimated Georgia line is experience that should make Texas fans feel hopeful.
Texas's Top Six
The expected benefit from improvements on the coaching staff are a big reason why it seems reasonable to expect improvement from this unit even as the roster of linemen still leaves plenty to be desired. Texas lost two starters from last year's team, but it's telling that in sitting down to write this I literally had to look at a box score to recall that it was Britt Mitchell and Kyle Hix. Mitchell was a program player who had no business sniffing a starting job on a good offensive line, and while Hix was a good bit better than that, he was merely adequate -- serviceable as a starting right tackle, but ideally cast as a valuable back up to greater talent.
(EDIT: I belatedly realized I forgot the departure of Michael Huey, as well. Shows just how forgettable last season was. In any event, Huey is an example of a guy who had plenty of talent, but struggled to become the consistent player he had the potential to become. A great example of our failure on the coaching/development side.)
Improving that talent base has been at the top of the priority list for the past two years and while that task is well under way, 2011 qualifies as a transition year, particularly after the most immediately ready of this year's OL recruits (Christian Westermann) bailed on Texas for Auburn. While the staff tries to restock the stable with improved talent and player development, this year's offensive line is decidedly lacking in depth.
Even with all that said, there are reasons to be hopeful about this year's line. First and foremost is the interior of the line, where the projected starters provide a promising blend of talent and experience. David Snow returns at center, having appeared in all 39 games since arriving at Texas, and making 19 starts, including all 12 last year. Although not as quick as you'd like a center to be, Snow's solid base and above-average strength allow him to hold up well even against monstrous 3-4 nose guards. So long as he's out there, Texas will be in good shape at center.
Fans can also feel good about the starting options at guard. Locked in at right guard is sophomore Mason Walters, who is building off an encouraging (all things considered) redshirt freshman season in which he started all 12 games and at his best showed himself to be the most talented offensive lineman of a broken offense. Walters is a particularly good bet to benefit from being liberated from the deficiencies of the old regime, appearing poised to shine as he receives better physical training and technical instruction, and as he gets to block plays that are well conceived, well taught, and strategically called. Walters is athletic enough to be a versatile blocker, but even if he wasn't, his huge frame and impressive strength make him an ideal guard to seal off defenders when blocking down for plays like the Power O.
Less definitive is the starting left guard, due to uncertainty as to whether Tray Allen -- returning from an ankle injury that cost him all of last year -- will prove capable of manning the left tackle position. If he is, the starter at left guard will be Trey Hopkins, who last season was baptized by fire as a true freshman, gaining valuable experience across all 12 games, including 4 starts. Though early on Hopkins mostly looked overwhelmed, he steadily improved and really started to look solid by season's end. Better for the experience, Hopkins impressed throughout the spring and played capably in the Orange-White game -- including, notably, on a touchdown scored off the Power O, when he pulled into the hole and destroyed the middle linebacker just in front of the ball carrier. Although Hopkins likely still needs more seasoning before the consistency's there, he's already shown remarkable raw ability -- so much so that he could be Texas's most valuable lineman as soon as this fall. Walters was the more highly regarded recruit capable of playing all five positions on the line, but heading into his true sophomore season it's Hopkins who may end up being the top lineman on the roster. Once his technical skills fully catch up with his raw ability, he's going to be an all-conference performer.
An interior line of Hopkins, Snow, and Walters is much more than serviceable; that's a legitimate strength for the offense and what Harsin-White want to do. Much less certain is the situation at tackle. On the left side, the if he is all the way back following his injury, Tray Allen seems likely to get the starting nod. After two empty seasons as a back up on the outside, Allen moved to guard as a junior where I thought he looked quite strong and probably should have started over Charlie Tanner. Allen declared himself 95% healed this spring, and if he's truly 100% healed by this fall he can be a key piece to the offensive line. At 6-4, 310 pounds, Allen isn't lacking in size, but it was his superior athleticism that made him such a highly regarded prospect out of high school and was behind his flashes of strong play as a junior.
In the event that he isn't able to play on the outside, Allen would play inside at guard and Hopkins would start at left tackle, which, really, isn't such a bad place to have your best offensive lineman. Still, given the particular duties of the two in the running game Harsin-White will feature, the best guess is that the staff would prefer Allen prove capable of manning the left tackle position, allowing Hopkins to remain inside, where more pulling and second-level block is required. Considering Allen's health, let's also throw Thomas Ashcraft into the mix, the likely starter at guard if Allen's health keeps him off the field entirely. The 6-5, 310-pound guard has a broad, well-built base and strength that plays right now, but his challenges are agility and mobility, the lack of which limit his ability to put his strength to optimal use.
Turning finally to the right side, the starting job will go to Paden Kelley, the 6-7, 305 pound Lake Travis star who saw action in 7 games as a true freshman last season and whose development curve increasingly looks like that of a quality starter in the future. The question is how soon the consistency/quality will arrive, and the paucity of upperclassman options means we're going to find out this fall. Kelley has displayed nice mobility and increasingly better use of his hands and long arms, but in pass protection presently lacks the footwork needed to handle above-average speed rushers, while as a run blocker the tall and long lineman too often finds himself out-leveraged. Still, in Kelley there is promising talent and some experience, making it conceivable that he's ready to provide quality play -- if not right away, certainly by November.
A Modest Team Asset?
Looking at the best case scenario involving these players as a top six for the offensive line, I dare say the group could prove to be a modest team asset. Snow, Walters, and Hopkins are all strong, readied starters, the latter two with considerable raw talent and upside. Kelley provides a solution at right tackle with promising potential to develop into a worthy starter quickly, even if he's not yet quite there. And Allen is a positive as either a left guard or tackle, what with Hopkins capable of playing both. Throw in Ashcraft as a solid contributor with some upside of his own if the agility has improved, and that's not a top six to bemoan. Able to stay on the field all year, that's a line that could provide real value to the offense.
Nevertheless, what optimism there is can only be cautious, limited as it is to a best case scenario. There are a lot of 'ifs' in there: If Allen is all the way back... If Kelley is ready to start in September and can develop quickly... If everyone stays healthy...
That last one is, of course, the greatest cause for concern, both because it is a lot to hope for all your offensive linemen to remain healthy all year, and because the drop off behind them is so severe. While players like Dominic Espinosa and Garrett Porter and a cadre of incoming freshmen could all have productive years developing as back ups and in the weight room, Texas will be in big trouble they're forced to play meaningful minutes. There are promising players in the bunch who look capable of developing into valuable contributors, but we have to hope that Texas' painful lack of quality upperclassmen doesn't force us to depend on them to be starters this fall.
On the whole, the situation at offensive line provides reason to worry, but it could be worse, and with some breaks could be a legitimate source of value. Texas can and must do better, but in the meantime, at least there's some reason to be hopeful.
And now your turn: How are you feeling about this year's offensive line? Do you share my cautious optimism that the starting unit -- health allowing -- might be quite solid? I'm guessing Allen-Hopkins-Snow-Walters-Kelley; who are your projected starters from left-to-right? Do you think any of the young back ups that I didn't discuss very much will prove ready to provide some value this year?